College Park considers allowing noncitizens to vote in city elections

The City of College Park mayor and council 2016 – 2017. Bottom row from left to right: Councilmember Monroe Dennis, Councilmember Christine Nagle, Councilmember Mary Cook and Councilmember Dustyn Kujawa. Top row from left to right: Councilmember P.J. Brennan, Councilmember Stephanie Stullich, Mayor Patrick Wojahn, Councilmember Fazlul Kabir, and Councilmember Robert Day. Photo courtesy of The City of College Park

BY SANDY LUNDAHL — College Park residents who attended the city council meeting and public hearing on July 11 seemed to be equally divided in their support or nonsupport of Charter Amendment 17-CR-02, which would allow non-U.S. citizens to vote in city elections.

The amendment also authorizes the establishment of a supplemental voter list for non-U.S. citizens, however, details on the registration process and how the list would be maintained were not provided.

“Best council meeting in a long time, maybe the best ever,” said former Councilmember John Krouse after the meeting. Krouse elaborated by saying people were prepared, well-expressed and brought up different angles to the issue of who should be allowed to vote in city elections.

People speaking against the amendment argued that voting is a privilege of being a citizen and not a right just because you live in the city. Opponents encouraged the council to look for other ways to integrate noncitizens into the community or to limit voting rights to residents who hold green cards or specific kinds of visas that allow a person to live in the U.S. without becoming a citizen.

Taxation without representation was a common theme expressed by the people speaking in support of the amendment. Supporters of the amendment also said it would send a clear message that the city values and encourages participation of all residents. Others argued that the city should not treat noncitizens as “second-class.” One supporter said those who will vote are motivated by the same issues as those who currently vote.

Supporters cited Takoma Park, Maryland, as a city that has allowed noncitizen voting for decades. Hyattsville granted voting rights to noncitizens in December 2016, followed by Mount Rainier in January.  

College Park would be the largest municipality in Maryland to extend voting rights to noncitizens if the city council approves the amendment.

One of the more moving statements in support of the amendment was made by Barbara Pando-Behnke, co-chair of the One College Park Coalition. Pando-Behnke is of Bolivian descent. Having attended many family celebrations of relatives who achieved citizenship, Pando-Dehnke said she has seen firsthand how gaining citizenship is “an honor and has a sacred quality.”

However, “then is not now,” Pando-Behnke said, adding that thousands of people living in the city are not represented and “don’t always feel heard.” The question she asked councilmembers to consider is not whether, but how to implement the amendment; namely, how long must noncitizens have lived in the city, what is the proof of residency, and what is the cost?

“I’m on the fence; I kinda see both sides,” said Dan Blasberg, adding that he was 60 percent against the amendment but open to hearing both sides. Blasberg expressed concern about the cost to maintain the supplemental voter list.

A very rough estimate of the cost is $6,700, depending on the final wording of the amendment, said a city staff member in response to a question asked by Councilmember Fazlul Kabir.

Did anyone change their mind as a result of the hearing?

No, said one of the opponents after the meeting, adding that supporters live in a “different universe.” He said he was pleased by the number of people who agreed with him about the need to be a citizen to have the privilege of voting.  

“It was a great meeting,” said Councilmember Christine Nagle. Nagle and Councilmember Kabir both said they learned a lot from the public hearing.

“What’s the next step?” asked Councilmember Mary Cook at the end of the work session that followed the regular meeting and public hearing. Cook said she was concerned because there’s a lot of misinformation floating around [about the proposed amendment] and that more information was needed.

“We will vote at the Aug. 8 meeting,” said Mayor Patrick Wojahn. He summarized the process by explaining that the councilmembers discussed the topic at the June 6 work session followed by the public hearing held July 11. There will be a debate among councilmembers before they vote.

Councilmember Nagle brought the issue to the attention of the council and explained her support at the June 6 work session by saying, “This is a great opportunity to engage more of our residents and to empower them to participate in our municipal government. These are people who pay property and income taxes, their children are in the schools, and yet they don’t have a voice in municipal elections about things that impact their daily lives.”

Councilmember Cook asked what type of immigration status would be allowed, noting that there are lots of different kinds of visas as well as people who are undocumented.

“It depends on who we are talking about, as to whether I would vote for this,” Cook said.

Takoma Park, Hyattsville, and Mount Rainer do not ask about immigration status when residents register to vote in city elections.

“It would be logistically and administratively simpler if we not care [about immigration status],” said Mayor Wojahn at the June 6 work session.

The council asked city staff to prepare the amendment to present at the July 11 city council meeting and public hearing.

After the hearing several people questioned why the amendment was being rushed through the process.

“Why so fast?” asked Jack Robson after the public hearing. Robson, who has been chief of the College Park Board of Election Supervisors since the early 1990s, said his concern was maintaining an accurate supplemental voter roll.

“Part B of this issue is to discuss maintaining our own voting records,” said former Councilmember Krouse after the meeting. We should be sure to do “due diligence,” he added.  

“I would be OK with stringing this out for several months,” said Krouse.

Councilmember Cook said she was concerned that speeding through the process without further discussion would create an unnecessary divide in the city.

If approved on Aug. 8, the amendment would be implemented 50 days later and residents could register within the approved timeframe before the November elections, said City Clerk Janeen Miller.